Hands-on with Atomos Ninja: First Impressions
Jeff Pulera
April 18, 2011

Hands-on with Atomos Ninja: First Impressions

Safe Harbor recently received our much-anticipated first shipment of Atomos Ninja 10-bit ProRes Field Recorders.
An out of box experience

Safe Harbor recently received our much-anticipated first shipment of Atomos Ninja 10-bit ProRes Field Recorders. Our shipment included a demo unit for evaluation, which I quickly grabbed and opened up. I’m a videographer myself, so I tend to get more excited about these things than the typical sales guy.

In case you’ve been off the planet the last few months and had not heard any of the pre-release buzz about the Ninja, it’s a portable, battery-powered unit that takes the live uncompressed HDMI feed from your camcorder and saves it to a 2.5” hard drive in the 10-bit ProRes format with 4:2:2 quality, bypassing the compression cameras use when saving HD video to tape or memory card. The captured ProRes files can then be immediately edited in Final Cut Pro without Log and Transfer or any type of transcoding needed! For PC users, I found that the ProRes clips play well in Premiere Pro CS5 also.

The Ninja Complete Bundle comes in a custom Ninja Carry Case adorned front and back with “Atomos” and “Ninja” medallions. I popped the dual latches, but the case failed to open, even with some gentle prying. I then noticed a small knob, front and center, beneath the rubberized carry handle. I turned it counter-clockwise until I heard a gentle hissing sound, and after a few seconds, the lid magically popped open.  It’s nice to know the case is designed to keep the outside environment away from the tech goodies inside, and probably due to a pressure differential during shipping, the Ninja case had become vacuum-sealed! This says something about the quality of the case, having an airtight seal.

Inside the case I found the kit components neatly organized into die-cut foam. The kit includes the Ninja Unit, two 2600mAh NP-type batteries, dual charger unit, two Master Drive Caddies, Mac/PC Docking Station, Firewire 800 and USB 3.0 interface cables, and a USB power cable for the Dock.  A Quick-Start guide and warranty card are also included. Make sure to register your unit online to increase the one-year warranty to three full years!

An HDMI cable is not included, as everyone’s needs may vary for length and style. You will also need a 2.5” hard drive, either SSD or spinning disk. The SSD will be preferable where shock or vibration might be a factor, though many newer laptop drives have great shock-protection built-in to minimize possible recording issues.

Power system

The two included NP-style batteries are said to power the unit for up to 5, 7, or 9 hours, recording ProRes HQ, 422, or LT respectively, and of course larger batteries can increase those figures. Currently, Ninja displays current battery voltage, but not a remaining run time estimate. Atomos’ website says that will be addressed by an upcoming firmware update.

The batteries come partially charged, so I attached them both onto the back of the Ninja so I could begin testing it. The battery mounts are very tight and feature positive locking, so the batteries are definitely not going to come off in the field until you want them to. The Ninja will operate with a battery in Slot 1 only, but mounting the second battery doubles operating time and Ninja will then auto-switch the power source when one battery runs down. The only button on the Ninja is the recessed POWER button, and it needs to be depressed for 4 seconds to turn the Ninja on or off, making it nearly impossible to do by accident.

I powered up the Ninja, and the 4.3” color LCD touchscreen came to life. I didn’t have a hard drive yet, or a camera to connect for that matter, but I was able to at least familiarize myself with the menus and settings using the touchscreen controls. I wish all devices were so intuitive to use – no buried options or folders to dig through, just clean and simple controls with most settings accessible with only one or two touches! While it was fun to play with the touchscreen controls, I was eager to actually record some video with it.

Ready, Set, Record!

I charged up the batteries overnight using the included dual charger unit, and brought my Sony FX7 1080i HDV camcorder with me to the office the next morning. The Western Digital Scorpio Black 500GB 2.5” laptop drive that Safe Harbor ordered for my evaluation purposes also arrived, so I was ready for some real testing. I chose a spinning disk for review because the SSD drives are assumed to be totally shock-proof since they’re solid-state; I wanted to see how much movement the spinning disk could realistically handle while recording.

Using the included screws, I mounted the drive into a Master Drive Caddy, and then slid the Caddy into the slot on the left side of the Ninja until it clicked, firmly locking in place. I powered up the Ninja and went to the Drive Info page and chose FORMAT, which only took a few moments. This sets up the drive for use with the Ninja, using the FAT32 file system.

While FAT32 has a 4GB file size limit, I came to realize this is actually a good thing, since I wouldn’t want to lose a long recording if the unit were dropped or lost power. I like to think of it as an “auto save” feature that saves my work every few minutes for peace of mind, since moving to a tapeless workflow does take some getting used to mentally, whether recording to a memory card in-camera or a device like the Ninja.

I connected the HDMI out from the camera into the Ninja, and it auto-sensed the video format as 1080i 59.94 and presented this info at the top left of the screen. The top center of the screen lists the ProRes preset being used, and a simple touch toggles through the three recording options of ProRes LT, ProRes 422, and ProRes HQ. The bottom right of the screen features a countdown timer showing record time remaining on the drive at the current ProRes quality preset. Hitting the red REC button immediately began recording the live camera feed - what could be simpler?

Seeing is believing

While recording, I touched the onscreen MON button, and this replaced the control button interface with a full-screen live image of the video being recorded, with overlays showing the running timecode and active audio channels.

Tapping on the screen once toggled all overlays off, providing clean full-screen video. This is a good way to verify if the camera itself is overlaying any data on the HDMI output, as you wouldn’t want that recorded! For video cameras, the status overlays on output can be disabled, but some DSLRs always show some info. Connect your camera direct to an LCD display and check your HDMI output quality before investing in the Ninja, as some DSLRs have permanent overlays and/or limited resolution via HDMI out, making the camera’s HDMI output unsuitable for recording.

While the 4.3” screen is not HD-resolution at 480 x 270, it does have a 16:9 aspect ratio. I found the colors and brightness to be very accurate, and more than sharp enough to assist manual focusing. Being much larger than my camera’s LCD, I prefer the look of the Ninja preview screen. The brightness can be adjusted, but in normal room lighting, the Ninja display at full brightness very closely matched my camera’s LCD, with the colors on the Ninja being just a bit more realistic perhaps. Get a Ninja for its recording capabilities, and think of the preview monitor as a fringe benefit!

The touchscreen has a nice feel to it – you have to press an icon for a very brief moment - just a fraction of a second really - before it registers, but not so long that it would be considered waiting for a result. Hard to explain, but it just feels right! This helps to avoid accidental changes from less deliberate contact. I should note that Power Off does require a press of 4 seconds to engage, for obvious reasons.

Can you hear me now?

Two audio channels are normally recorded from the HDMI input, but Ninja also has a 1/8” stereo line input jack, providing optional 2-channel analog audio recording. The analog input gain can be adjusted for the line input, and you can choose to record HDMI only, analog only, or both at once to four mono audio tracks in your ProRes clip.

Headphone monitoring is provided via a 1/8’’ stereo jack, and on-screen controls allow volume adjustment and toggling between monitoring the HDMI or Analog source. There’s also a LANC jack with loop-thru for cameras that support it for remote record stop/start.

There are 4 audio level meters onscreen, and while perhaps too small for determining proper recording levels, they do turn orange when peaking. It’s always a good idea to use headphones to monitor the sound quality being recorded, and of course most video cameras will have decent level meters and audio controls to pre-adjust proper levels before the signal ever gets to the Ninja. I wouldn’t be surprised if a firmware update provided better level meters at some point though.

Where’s that clip?

To organize your Ninja recordings, you can assign SCENE, SHOT, and TAKE numbers via touchscreen prior to making a recording, and these correspond to the folder arrangement then created on the hard drive. Each recorded ProRes clip is saved within the folder structure as 000.mov, 001.mov, and so on, with recordings over 4GB being sequentially numbered and saved seamlessly.

After making recordings, files can be played back on the Ninja screen, but as of this writing, this preview offers only a low frame rate with reduced resolution. Worth repeating is that the live view during capture looks very good when in MON mode. Atomos has said the playback will be improved with a future firmware update. Other forthcoming fixes include support for recording of 1080p25 and 1080p30 sources. Please check Atomos.com for current specs to make sure your format needs are currently met.

Load ‘em up!

After making some test recordings, trying all three ProRes recording modes, I was ready to view the results on our in-house 12-Core Mac Pro machine. While pressing the release lever on the Ninja, I removed the Master Drive Caddy and then slid it into the Caddy Docking Station and connected that to the Mac Pro using the included Firewire 800 cable, which also supplies power. The Docking unit also works with USB 3.0 or 2.0 (cable included), and draws power from the USB bus. If there is not enough power available, a USB power cable is included to connect to your computer to run the Dock.

After a few seconds, the Mac recognized my drive as “Ninja.”   From there, I opened Final Cut Pro and was able to Import the folder of ProRes clips directly from the drive and drop them right into the FCP timeline for playback, with no Log and Transfer or transcoding necessary! This is a huge timesaver, especially with Same Day Edits becoming popular with many wedding videographers. From camera to timeline, almost instantly! Of course the files can be transferred from the Docking Station drive to a video drive in the editing system if you choose, but the 7200rpm Scorpio Black drive had no trouble providing smooth playback via FW800 in FCP.

When thinking of ProRes, most people will immediately think ‘Apple,’ but Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 also accepts ProRes clips! I was able to connect the Docking Station to our Tsunami PC workstation and import the ProRes clips right into Premiere Pro CS5 for the same immediate playback as experienced with FCP.

Atomos has suggested that with 2.5” drives being so inexpensive, that they could be archived on the shelf just as tapes have been in the past. Copy the ProRes files to your main editing drive, and put the Master Caddy on the shelf then for backup, at least until the project is delivered. This is truly less expensive per hour of video than just about any HD tape or memory card solution if you think about it. Atomos offers additional Master Drive Caddy 5-packs, with slots for 5 Caddies in the carry case.

Ninja goes anywhere

For mounting, Ninja has standard ¼” threads top and bottom. I picked up an inexpensive hot-shoe to ¼” thread adapter at the local camera shop and mounted Ninja directly atop the camcorder, but if you have some sort of camera accessory mounting rig like those offered by iKan, you will have plenty of off-camera mounting points available. I weighed the Ninja at about 1.3 pounds with hard drive and batteries installed, so keep this in mind and make sure your mounts are sturdy enough to safely support Ninja, as it is more substantial in both weight and value than the average microphone that might sit atop your camera.

All you need is a suitable HDMI cable between Ninja and your camera, with no power cables to worry about. Make sure to tie up your HDMI cable to reduce stress at the connections, and also to keep it from getting pulled out by accident.

I’m sure that enterprising camera people will find many innovative places and methods for mounting their Ninja recorder. I’d expect that Atomos may well be offering some accessory items in the near future themselves.

Drive it home

Atomos recommends SSD drives for situations involving shock or vibration, but of course they’re more expensive and have less capacity than a spinning disk drive. As such, I was very curious to see just how much abuse a spinning disk would take before aborting a recording. I’m quite impressed with the WD Scorpio Black 500GB drive’s ability to withstand quite a bit of rough handling! Results may vary with other brands of drives, but Atomos had given high marks to this particular drive in their testing and I can see why. Atomos says the Ninja does have some internal buffering, so this apparently takes care of minor interruptions without issue.

From my experience, I’d have no hesitation in specifying the spinning disk hard drive for use on a tripod, or for most handheld shooting that doesn’t involve shock. Handle Ninja with the same care that (I hope) you provide your camera, and you should be fine. If doing sports or outdoor video work when you might be running, jumping, or riding in or on a vehicle, then you’d likely want, or in fact need, an SSD unit to ensure reliable recording.

The Scorpio Black spinning disk is inexpensive enough that I’d suggest you just get one to start with and do your own suitability testing. If you find that you need an SSD for certain situations, then get one with the knowledge that the Scorpio drive will always be available for other situations.

Atomos is a brand-new tech company, but they seem to have a great deal of engineering and innovation behind them. They’ve already announced the Atomos Samurai, similar to the Ninja, but offering HD-SDI input, a larger 5” screen, and the ability to do 3D recording using twin Samurai units.

The hardware inside Ninja is fully-programmable using FPGA technology, so future firmware updates offer a wide degree of flexibility in offering new features using the existing hardware. Atomos has already offered three firmware updates within days of the initial product release, fixing minor bugs and adding additional features.

Just this morning, I updated the Ninja firmware and it couldn’t have been easier. I downloaded a small .zip file from Atomos.com to my Mac, unzipped it, and copied the resulting ATOMNJA.FW file to the Ninja drive in the Docking Station, then moved the Master Caddy to the Ninja main unit and powered up. Within a couple of minutes, the unit had been updated, and checking the Info screen in Ninja verified that I was indeed now running version 1.04 firmware.
As a videographer, I think the Ninja is an amazing device, and the sub-$1000 price point for the entire kit is even more amazing. There is simply no better value to be had for this type of hardware, and I can’t wait to see what new features will be added with future firmware upgrades, as Atomos has hinted that they have many things in the works. I look forward to getting my own Ninja so I can put tapes, memory cards, and capturing behind me once and for all, allowing me to focus on the creative side and just edit! Check it out for yourself, and I’m sure you’ll agree that Ninja is THE ANSWER to today’s tapeless workflows.

The Atomos Ninja Complete Bundle is currently available from Safe Harbor for $995. Pre-orders for the Atomos Samurai Complete Bundle are also available, with an expected 2011 summer ship date.

See the introductory video from Atomos below and be sure to subscribe to our blog, follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook to see our hands-on video review coming soon!